She comes into the house, suitcase in tow, little face aglow at spending a couple of nights while her parents keep doctor’s appointments. She hugs them good-bye and before they’re halfway down the sidewalk, she grabs my hand:
“Franna, want to play with me?”
Isn’t there only one answer to this question?
“Of course! What do you want to play?”
We head to “her” room, where I keep books and blocks and bears and dolls and even a couple of old baby blankets for wrapping them. She’s always the mom. I am always the oldest child. I have to help her hold, feed, and potty-train the toys…er, my siblings.
“First I need to unpack,” she announces.
“Okay,” I say, as she unzips her suitcase, navy-blue with pink and white unicorns. “So, tomorrow we find out if you’re having a brother or sister! Isn’t it exciting?”
She nods: “I want a sister.”
“I know you do…but a brother would be nice, too” (because her parents and I think the baby is a boy).
She nods again, pulling a couple of stuffed animals out of her suitcase. She sets them on the bed. “Mama told me to be happy if it’s a boy.”
I am about to speak but just then, I notice something…
She’s brought Allioop, the raggedy orange cat that belonged to my son when he was little. She’s dressed him in Curious George’s T-shirt. He leans against the pillow beside a woolly bear sporting a pastel nightcap.
Allioop and the bear are wearing diapers.
“Did you put these diapers on your toys?”
“Yes. I’m practicing for the baby. Watch…” She shows me how to remove and replace the diapers with their little Velcro tabs.
Strikes me as one of the greatest acts of love I’ve seen.
Her parents FaceTimed to tell us that the new baby is, in fact, a girl. My granddaughter, who’s five, bounced up and down with joy: “My wish came true!” She later told my son that she can’t wait to teach her sister the word “photosynthesis.”
Dear Baby, what a wealth of love surrounds you, already.
–with thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge.
A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself.Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…
Where am I now in relation to awe?
Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…
Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…
with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.
When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.
I had to.
On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.
For Mrs. Cooley
You terrified me, you know looming large an immovable mountain in pearls and heels casting your dark shadow over my fourth-grade days
The topography of your years etched deep on your face your eagle eyes piercing my very existence
The fear and trembling of math drills— Dear Lord save me from subtraction!— I look up and there it is in your expression: You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip
I did not know that many years later when I’d be asked to write of my most memorable teacher that you’d spring to mind clear as day overshadowing all others
and that what I’d recall is how you read Charlotte’s Web to the class
I did not know I could love a spider so
and then how you read us Old Yeller
My God my God I almost died with that dog
I did not know that you were the one who made me love reading for there is a difference in being able to and it being the air you breathe
I could not believe how worried you were when I fell on the playground that day how you cradled my distorted left arm all the way to the office and waited with me ‘til Daddy came
I never dreamed you’d come see me at home when I had to stay in bed propped with pillows ice bag on my cast
I saw you and the tears came— I am missing the last two weeks of school I won’t pass the fourth grade
I did not know you could CHUCKLE that your sharp blue eyes could go so soft and watery and I never heard that phrase before: flying colors you pass with flying colors
Would you believe I am a teacher now it isn’t what I planned but here I am
I never knew until Daddy told me years ago that you’d passed how much I’d long to see you again to ask you a thousand things maybe even to laugh
but more than anything to thank you with all my heart
so I do that now in hopes that you and Charlotte and Old Yeller know that my love lives on
Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me
Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup
Yesterday on Ethical ELA, host Kim Johnson invited poets to write mirror poems: “Find a poet whose work inspires you and write a mirror poem of your own by taking a root from a poet’s work and allowing it to breathe life into your own inspired creation. This may be in the form of a borrowed line, a repeating line, a section or stanza, or an entire poem…”
There are a couple of breathtaking lines I love at the end of Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” – he is writing about dawn coming and “offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”
For Day Eight of National Poetry Month, here’s my mirror of those last five words, in the form of a pantoum:
To My Granddaughter, Age 5 (with love from Franna)
a small cup of light scooped from ocean waves my sparkling little love dancing through my days
scooped from ocean waves my giggling water sprite dancing though my days now such a sleepy sight
my giggling water sprite goodnight, goodnight now such a sleepy sight to me you are, you are
goodnight, goodnight my sparkling little love to me you are, you are a small cup of light
Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.
I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.
My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.
He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.
“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.
Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.
My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.
“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.
My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”
He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:
Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming…
Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.
I think how, less than two years ago, my husband wasdead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…
What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.
Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats
When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”
She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.
She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light…
Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.
I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.
The magnolia wreath.
Front door wreath and nest-in-progress
Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…
They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.
It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.
It is the end of March.
We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.
We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.
My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.
My husband has endured. He is alive.
My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.
The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.
This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.
I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.
One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:
I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.
“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.
She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”
“What is that sound?”
“Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”
She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.
“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.
And I am no longer scared, because now I know.
What does this have to do with magnolias?
Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.
Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her…
“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.
It’s a different park. A different tree.
But still, and always, a magnolia.
Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.
With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voicesfor many days to come.
It was a glorious fall afternoon when I took my youngest son, then four, on a quick trip to the hardware store. I was preparing to paint some baseboards in the house.
He was playing his favorite video game: Banjo Kazooie.
“You’ll have to pause that,” I told him. “We have to go buy some paint supplies. You can play it when we get back.”
“Okay,” he replied with good humor, “I’ll put it on the Eyes.”
The Eyes meant the pause screen where these colorful creatures called Jinjos just sit, blinking their big eyes.
My boy loved the Eyes. Would often pause the game just to watch them.
I could not see why the Eyes were so enthralling, but… moms are busy people, and I had things to do.
He paused his game with a last loving look at the Eyes, and off we went.
The round trip took about fifty minutes.
Upon arriving home, I thought it odd that a random piece of wood was lying on the back deck. It wasn’t there when we left…
Odder still: the back door standing ajar.
And that the bottom of it had been split wide open… hence that random piece of wood, and more pieces, in the doorway.
I couldn’t quite make sense of it.
I stepped into the house.
The comforter from my little boy’s bed lay in a heap in the middle of the living room. The soft blues, green, yellows, and oranges so out of place, there…
The TV was gone.
And the Nintendo.
In those split seconds, you don’t think I am currently messing up a crime scene, here in my house.
You think, What am I seeing? What has happened here?How much more…?
You go running room to room to find out.
It took only seconds to ascertain. All the TVs, gone. Older son’s gaming system, gone. Husband’s desktop computer, too. One pillowcase from my bed gone; bedclothes rumpled and mattress shifted where…where someone must have run hands underneath (do people really hide cash under their mattresses nowadays?).
My wedding rings still lying on the dresser in plain sight (I was planning to paint, remember) but the closet door open and my husband’s jewelry box, containing some of his deceased father’s cufflinks along with the shells from the twenty-one gun salute at the military funeral…gone.
“Mama! Mama!” My son’s voice, in the living room.
I race back down the hall.
He’s standing, facing the spot where the TV used to be. He looks up at me, confused:
“Where are the Eyes?”
That’s when it all snapped into focus:
“I have to call the police, honey. Bad strangers came and took the Eyes…”
Shortly after that is when the nightmares started. They lasted long beyond the years of child night terrors. Waking up believing someone was in the room, when no one was.
He couldn’t understand it, why bad strangers would come and take the Eyes. He asked over and over: “Why?”
We eventually replaced the Nintendo, eventually got another Banjo Kazooie game.
But a young, tender psyche paid a price. It was violated, just as our home was violated.
Bad strangers haunted his dreams for years.
One might expect that he’d grow up hardened, possibly angry, understandably mistrustful.
He is none of those things. The nighttime xenophobia never diminished the brightness of his being.
In his twenties now, my son is a gentle spirit. Kind, quiet and deliberate, with a quick, razor-sharp wit. He’s our musician, listening over and over to rhythms and patterns and chords that he can replicate on a number of instruments. A singer, a natural harmonizer; I know he hears things many of us do not, or maybe it’s just that he hears them differently and more beautifully. At seventeen, he achieved a childhood dream: He got a position as a church music director.
He’s recently left it for another calling. A full-time job, see.
Part of it involves going into people’s homes to take away something precious.
I don’t imagine many young people dream of going into the funeral home business but that is what my youngest has chosen. He refers to it as “a ministry.” He now encounters strangers in their time of greatest need, speaks words of comfort to them, enters their homes, and helps to carry their loved ones away for final arrangements. On these “death calls” he leaves our house wearing a tie, dressed in his best, out of respect for the strangers he will encounter and their dead.
He is at peace with himself and with others. A calming presence.
It occurs to me that the opposite of xenophobia is philoxenia, “friend to strangers.” It is the basis of the Biblical word translated as hospitality.
A good stranger, then, to the people he encounters. Once he saw an elderly lady with a walker eating alone in a restaurant; he paid for her meal along with his own, and left without telling her.
My precious boy, overcoming the darkness, being a light in so many ways… has it ever occurred to you that you are the Eyes.
To this day, the boy loves “the Eyes” – he even has a stuffed collection of Jinjos. In the video game Banjo Kazooie, the player must find where the witch has hidden the Jinjos, and rescue them.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 24, I am writing around a word beginning with letter x.
She loves jokes. She just doesn’t get the delivery.
“Okay, okay,” I say. “You’re going to have to practice. Let me tell you a joke that will CRACK PEOPLE UP. My mother used to laugh every single time. It was the best joke.” (Really it is the only one I can remember at the moment).
Her blue eyes shine. She bounces. “Tell me!”
“First I have a question: Do you know what unique means?”
She looks puzzled. “I don’t think so.”
“It means one of a kind, a thing that is different from anything else in the world.”
“Oh, like very special.”
“Yes! Exactly! Unique means very special and not like anything else. So are you ready for this joke?”
She nods. “Ready!”
“Here goes… How do you catch a unique animal?”
She pretends to think, hand on chin. “I don’t know!”
“You neek up on it. Get it?”
She looks blank.
“Like, you sneak up on it but instead of ‘sneak’ you say ‘neek’: You neek up on it…”
“Ohh, you take off the ‘s’ and… neek!” She dissolves in giggles.
We practice this over and over:
How do you catch a unique animal?
You neek up on it!
She belly laughs, every time.
When my son and his wife come to collect her, she runs to them with glee:
“Franna taught me a joke!”
“Great,” says my son, with absolutely NO enthusiasm. “She likes jokes, Mom; she doesn’t get how to tell them…”
“Ahem,” I warn. “She’s been working hard on this.”
I am sure I detect a tiny sigh, but my son says: “Okay, let’s hear it.”
“How do you catch a unique animal?” She can barely contain herself. Wait for it, wait for it…
Her parents look at each other and shrug.
“We don’t know. How do you catch a unique animal?” asks her mom.
“YOU NEEK UP ON IT!”
They crack up, and the look on her face…priceless.
Little unique creature. You neek up on my heart, over and over and over again.
Kinda like that joke.
My son says: “She just keeps telling it over and over, Mom. We’ve heard it a million times. It was funny like the first two times, but…”
“It’s her joke. Let her enjoy it.”
She’s a masterpiece in the making, see. At age five, she’s read Charlotte’s Web. Independently, with some questions about how to pronounce some words…I wondered how much she understood, really, but then my daughter-in-law tells this story: They were baking the other day and my unique animal was rolling out her dough with extreme care.
“Oh, you’re doing a nice job,” said my daughter-in-law.
“Thank you,” said my granddaughter, sprinkling flour. “It’s my magnum opus.”
“Magnum opus. It means ‘great work’.” And she patted away at the dough.
Great work…like mastery of that joke.
Dear, dear Charlotte… messages from one unique animal to another… magnum opus, indeed.
A unique moment with my unique granddaughter. We went to see the waterfall at the park. She’s holding my husband’s walking stick and wearing my “fancy” watch on her left arm, plus one of my sunhats. We pulled our masks away for the photo.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 21, I am writing around a word beginning with letter u.
While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.”
I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.
Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.
People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.
Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas.
Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.
This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.
As I balled them up to throw them away
I realized the tangle of color in my hand.
They spoke to me: Remember?
Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.
Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by
or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.
Fragments of my mother’s handiwork
vestiges of the artist she was
crafter of clothes we wore
tailor for many more.
Who’d have believed that such a creator
could destroy so completely?
A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color
in seams ripped apart
scattered far and wide
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.
The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.
Warning: I am sorry for what you are about to read. I was sorry I lived it, at the time.
When my grandparents moved “back home” to the rural countryside after Granddaddy’s retirement, they began converting a bedroom to a bathroom in the house where they raised three children in the 1940s and 50s. I was around six when this particular event occurred. I couldn’t imagine a house without a bathroom (or a phone, but that comes later). My dad told stories of growing up without a bathroom: everyone took turns bathing in a tub by the heater in the living room, behind a blanket hung from a string. So, up to this point, there was an outhouse in use; I have no memory of that, but…
The perfectly beautiful, modern bathroom was soon finished at my grandparents’ home, although they occasionally referred to the toilet as “the pot” throughout the remainder of their years. I can’t recall seeing the chamber pot ever again. Thank heaven.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 16, I am writing around a word beginning with letter p, which could really have gone in a number of directions here…
Special thanks to Kim Johnson for the invitation to write a vivid childhood memory this week on Ethical ELA, inspiring this poem.